Paul Gordon Collier-  From Vienna, Obama administration officials held a conference on extending the Joint Plan of Action with Iran over the Nuclear Weapons agreement.  The focus of the conference was an announcement that the JPOA’s suspension on sanctions was being extended an additional 4 months to November 24th, 2014, which works out to a full year from the start of the agreement.   This conference was held 2 am, July 18th, Vienna time.

Cathy Ashton of the US and Javad Zarif of Iran.

Cathy Ashton of the EU and Javad Zarif of Iran.

The JPOA is designed to afford Iran some relief from sanctions while the US and Iran work out the final details of a nuclear arms deal that will necessarily involve Iran dissolving its nuclear arms program which is still ongoing.

The conference is a follow-up of a news conference held by key negotiators Cathy Ashton of the EU and Javad Zarif, Foreign Minister of Iran.  In the announcement, Iran agreed to convert 25 percent of the 20 percent enriched uranium into fuel for a nuclear reactor (the Tehran Research Reactor).  Iran also agreed to dilute the remaining near-weapons-grade stockpiles.  Iran currently has three metric tons of the near-weapons-grade uranium in stockpiles..

Iran has also agreed to allow a process to confirm the claim by Iran that rotors for advanced centrifuges in the Natanz Plant will not be used in any facilities in which the IAEA do not have monthly access.

THE JPOA puts a suspension on sanctions in the following areas- automotive imports, petrochemical exports and trade in gold.   The unnamed administration official on this conference call claimed that the Iranians have derived very little actual monetary benefit from these suspensions, stating that the total benefit to Iran would be, by the November 24th deadline, $6 to $7 billion.  Sanctions on oil, banking and other financial restrictions have not been suspended.

Iran does get access to restricted financial accounts assessed at over $100 billion.  They will have access to $2.8 billion from those accounts over the course of the next four months.

The administration official also asserted the President’s commitment to “come down like a ton of bricks on those who evade or otherwise facilitate the circumvention of our sanctions.”  The administration official also asserted that “any foreign bank that transacts with any designated Iranian bank can lose its access to the U.S. financial system…”

Read our article on the ramifications of this aggressive prosecution.

A concern for some in congress is that the extension of the suspension of sanctions is setting a precedent of a perpetual state of extensions with no worked-out comprehensive agreement with Iran.  Administration officials counter that the extension is a natural one well within the original goal of the one-year target set last November 24th, that the extension of the suspension of sanctions simply allows for the full remaining four months to be fruitful periods of negotiation.

Israel’s continued opposition to the negotiation was addressed in this conference as well.  The administration claimed that Israel’s concerns over lack of transparency with the negotiations have been met with recent discussions with Israel, including a delegation led by Susan Rice to talk with Israeli leaders.

Concerns Israel had that the agreement would lead to ‘many tens of billions of dollars of relief’ have also not materialized, according to administration officials.  The officials assert the JPOA has outpaced expectations in how it was able to maintain existing, non-suspended sanctions, and the progress that has been made regarding Iran’s acceptance of monitors and transparency in its existing nuclear arms program.

A key part of this conference came when Jo Biddle from AFP asked this question, “On the clarifications side, when Secretary Kerry mentions in his statement that 25 kilograms of the 20 percent fuel, which has been converted – is going to be converted into – which has been diluted, is going to be converted into fuel, is – how much of this is actually – how much of the 20 percent stocks actually remains, and how much of this is going to be converted? How much of the 20 percent stocks is going to be converted into fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor?”

Here is how “Senior Administration Official Two” answered this question., “On the 25 kilograms, in all there are about a hundred – probably slightly less but about a hundred kilograms, so 25 percent, a quarter of the 20 percent enriched uranium oxide will be converted into fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor….”

“Once oxide – once enriched uranium is converted oxide into fuel plates, then Iran would find it quite difficult and time-consuming to use this 20 percent enriched material for further enrichment in a breakout scenario. So you want to turn this into metal plates because it makes it much more difficult, if not nearly impossible – not entirely impossible, but nearly impossible – to use it to further enrich the highly enriched uranium that could be used for a nuclear weapon.”

A key part of the benefit of JPOA, if true, is that Iran has allegedly stopped enriching uranium up to 20 percent, and is now only enriching up to 5 percent.  However, it does still have on stock 3 metric tons of Uranium enriched up to 20 percent.  The leap from 20 percent enriched uranium to weapons grade uranium is not substantial, because, as one of the Administration officials pointed out, “it’s not far from 20 percent, once you’ve mastered that, to get to highly enriched uranium.”

Senior Administration Official One stated this in a response to a question from Josh Lederman from the AP about Congress’ push to a delayed sanctions bill that would take effect if the JPOA fails to produce a comprehensive agreement: “ This issue came up in January, and the President made clear that he did not think that – well, first of all, the President made clear that any new sanctions bill along those lines would likely derail the negotiations and divide the P5+1 and unravel the existing sanctions regime. And in that context he said he would veto any such bill. Congress then essentially did not move forward with that legislation….”.

“…..our original concerns have not changed. If anything, our P5+1 partners are more invested in this process because of the progress that’s been made. So, were the United States to impose additional sanctions unilaterally during the course of the negotiations, we would be concerned that that could put at risk the P5+1 unity that is essential to reaching a good agreement, and could also provoke responses from the Iranians that would not be constructive in reaching a comprehensive resolution.”

“……We believe that Congress helped get us where we are today because the sanctions helped create the conditions that brought Iran to the negotiating table. We believe that Iran needs to be aware that there is the leverage of additional sanctions because Congress is ready to act at the drop of a hat…..”

So, while the President is threatening to veto any legislation that would penalize the Iranians if they fail to come to a comprehensive agreement at the end of the JPOA, administration officials acknowledge the threat of such action is assisting them in negotiations right now.

ANALYSIS:  There are a number of claims the administration is making through this JPOA that are unsubstantiated, specifically the claim that Iran is no longer enriching uranium up to 20 percent.  Also, how are they assured that the Iranians are not using the more sophisticated centrifuges in facilities in which no outside monitors have access to verify that no such centrifuges are in operation?

The administration claims that the JPOA is offering little monetary reward to the Iranians.   This does not factor in the political capital afforded a regime that regularly calls for the elimination of Israel. Nor does it factor the economic boom from within Iran as a direct result of the expected further lifting of sanctions. Markets rise and fall, often, on speculation alone.

The fact that only 25 percent of the 20 percent enriched uranium is being accounted for (and then not absolutely eliminated from the possibility of being converted to weapons grade uranium) is troubling, most of all for Iran’s hated neighbor, Israel.

The stated end-goals of this JPOA do not offer a definitive, verifiable confirmation that the Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program has been eliminated and cannot, any time soon, be reinvigorated.  This fact alone makes the point of the JPOA questionable at best, and certainly not an agreement that Iran’s neighbors (especially Israel, but including other nations like Saudi Arabia, who also do not wish to see Iran come into possession of nuclear weapons).

One final note, which touches on an earlier article we did about the actions of the Justice Department threatening the dollar itself. As a direct result of this negotiation through the JPOA, for political reasons the US must appear to be strong in pursuit of the sanctions that already exist.  When a Senior Official re-asserts the US commitment to pursue foreign banks that violate the existing financial sanctions on Iran, it puts us in the unenviable position of pushing other nations to more aggressively pursue an alternative to the US dollar as the world currency.